After delays, Netanyahu finally leaves for London, where more protesters await

Flight was apparently delayed both because of planned protests at home and restricted hours at Heathrow, meaning PM will have little time before meeting with UK counterpart Sunak

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and his wife Sara ascend a plane before taking off for London, March 24, 2023. (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and his wife Sara ascend a plane before taking off for London, March 24, 2023. (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took off early Friday morning for a weekend visit to London, where he is slated to hold talks with British counterpart Rishi Sunak.

Netanyahu’s plane departed at around 4:30 a.m., after it was delayed amid reported plans by anti-judicial overhaul protesters to attempt to block the premier’s path to the airport as he made his way to Europe for the third weekend in a row.

Netanyahu is slated to head directly to 10 Downing Street after landing at Heathrow airport around 6:30 a.m. local time for talks related to Iran’s nuclear program. He is also scheduled to meet with Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Netanyahu’s office said. No other meetings have been announced for the three-day trip.

Officials had kept Netanyahu’s travel plans close to their chest in the lead-up to the flight, seen as an attempt to outmaneuver protesters, though he will also be met by Israelis protesting the overhaul in the UK.

According to a report by the Ynet news site, the premier had initially planned to take off at around 11 p.m. Thursday, but was forced to wait once officials learned of Heathrow’s longstanding ban on landings in the middle of the night.

The shortened timeline was cut even further since Israel’s clocks jumped ahead an hour for Daylight Savings just ahead of the flight.

The trip marks the third weekend in a row that the Israeli leader has jetted off to a European capital, after visits to Rome and Berlin in the last two weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Rome’s Palazzo Chigi, March 10, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Like those jaunts, Netanyahu’s London calling will keep him in the city over Shabbat at the taxpayers’ expense, leading to some criticism that the scheduling is an irresponsible use of public funds.

Netanyahu and his family have been accused in the past of spending taxpayer money liberally for creature comforts or personal expenses; in 2013, he came under fire for having the state spend $127,000 to outfit a plane with a bed so he could get some sleep during a four-hour flight to London for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

The Prime Minister’s Office maintains that the timing of the trips is determined by the hosts’ schedules, and that he cannot be away from the Knesset mid-week because of crucial votes on the judicial overhaul, among other coalition priorities.

Netanyahu has sought to focus the visits on the threats posed by Iran, and will do so in London as well, according to his office.

“At the center of their meeting will stand the Iranian issue,” said the PMO in a statement, “and the need to form a unified international front against Iran with the goal of stopping the nuclear program.”

A student looks at Iran’s domestically built centrifuges in an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Netanyahu and Sunak will also discuss strengthening bilateral ties, especially in defense and intelligence.

The meeting is Sunak’s first with a senior Israeli government official since he came into office in October. In November, he met with President Isaac Herzog on the sidelines of the UN climate summit in Egypt.

The UK is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and is, along with Germany and France, one of the European signatories to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran.

However, it left the European Union in 2020, and has been working to chart an independent foreign policy course.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves after his visit to Port of Cromarty Firth at Invergordon, Scotland, January 13, 2023. (Russell Cheyne/Pool via AP)

On Tuesday, the framework for the future of bilateral Israel-UK ties was signed in London by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.

According to the UK’s Foreign Office, the 2030 Roadmap for UK-Israeli Bilateral Relations “contains detailed commitments for deepening cooperation across the breadth of the Israel-UK relationship, including on trade, cyber, science and tech, research and development, security, health, climate and gender.”

Though public statements avoided Israel’s bitter internal fight over the judicial overhaul during Cohen’s visit, Netanyahu won’t be able to avoid it as easily.

As originally reported by Army Radio, a British diplomat met recently with an opposition MK who said she wanted Sunak to publicly oppose the overhaul. According to Channel 12 news, Sunak and British officials have not yet decided whether the British prime minister will publicly criticize Netanyahu’s government over the matter.

The issue is expected to come up in the leaders’ private meeting, but as there are currently no public statements or press conferences planned, there may be no opportunity for Sunak to express a stance publicly beyond the readout of their conversation, which is currently being discussed between the two sides.

During the premier’s trip to Germany earlier this month, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Netanyahu publicly sparred over the overhaul plan in front of the cameras.

Netanyahu will be met in London by protesters against the judicial overhaul, in addition to the anti-Israel demonstrators that regularly await Israeli leaders in Europe.

A flyer stuck to the side of a London Underground carriage on March 20, 2023 announcing a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to London (Channel 12 screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright law)

Signs have been spotted around London giving details of the protest and saying “Bibi should not expect a relaxing weekend in London.”

Earlier this month, hundreds of protesters in London held signs in both Hebrew and English reading “A government of criminals will not appoint judges,” and “Israelis for the future of Israel.” They chanted “Democracy,” and some showed up in “Handmaid’s Tale” costumes that have become a hallmark of the protests in Israel.

Hundreds rally against the Israeli government’s controversial judicial overhaul proposal in London, March 12, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

There has been no announcement of any meetings with Jewish communal leaders during the trip. According to Channel 12, it was not yet clear if such meetings would be held, raising further questions about the need for the premier and his wife to spend days in the British capital.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews umbrella organization said in a statement Tuesday that it “would appreciate the opportunity to meet [Netanyahu] to discuss the ongoing situation in the country” during his trip, especially in light of the UK Jewish community’s “close emotional, spiritual and familial connection to Israel.”

But the group noted that “we understand that given the brief nature of his visit, such a meeting may not be possible.”

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